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Why energy investors are looking at the Caribbean

The energy landscape in the United States has transformed radically in the last few years, and its neighbors' has, too.

Tourists take in the sites from a tour bus in Havana, Feb. 28, 2015.
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Tourists take in the sites from a tour bus in Havana, Feb. 28, 2015.

Caribbean countries import nearly 99 percent of their energy, largely in the form of petroleum products. Two countries in the region, Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, have for years played a big role in covering the energy needs of the rest of the region. But with Venezuela experiencing an economic implosion, other Caribbean nations are looking for new sources of energy.

U.S. interests are in a particularly good position to invest in the Caribbean's energy needs as oil prices have fallen, the United States has under gone a natural gas boom and relations with Cuba have shifted.

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"The Caribbean could offer investors tremendous opportunities," said Charles K. Ebinger, senior fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Opening relations with Cuba this year could be "quite dramatic," he said.

Cuba is planning wind projects and hopes to produce 24 percent of its own electricity in 15 years, and Puerto Rico hopes that 20 percent of its electricity comes from renewable energy by 2035.

Between 2009 and 2013, foreign direct investment in the Caribbean nearly doubled to $217 billion, according to data from the World Bank.

That capital is finding its way into a variety of Caribbean industries, including energy, said Edgar van der Meer, a senior analyst at NRG Expert, a London- and Toronto-based energy intelligence and market research publisher.

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Recent advances in hydraulic fracturing—so-called fracking—horizontal drilling and the growing shale gas production they have produced mean the U.S. is importing less fossil fuel from Caribbean islands like Trinidad and Tobago, historically a producer for the region.

"Now, we are in a position to sell to them at a cheaper price," said Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project, a nonpartisan think tank. "And once the government allows (more exports) and the infrastructure is there, we can export liquefied natural gas and other natural gas products to them."

Investors interested in the Caribbean region should look to the wind and solar energy markets, said Ebinger, as well as the tourism market, which will benefit from cheaper and more efficient energy.

Cuba is an important destination for potential investors, said Holland, as its economy has picked up after five decades of practically no growth.

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The Obama administration in December took steps to begin an economic and diplomatic rapprochement with the communist nation, which for its part has begun to experiment with free market business on a small scale.

"You can't yet run your island on solar or wind power, but you can do a lot," Holland said.

"It's one of the only places in the world where you can throw up as much solar and wind power as possible." -Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate, the American Security Project

The cost of generating electricity in the Caribbean is higher than much of the rest of the world, which can impede direct investment. In Jamaica, consumers pay 38 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity. In Puerto Rico, that figure stands at 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt hour. In contrast, the average American household pays 10.13 cents per kilowatt hour, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"That (makes it) very difficult to make business and investment decisions; like if you're a rum distiller, you want to make sure you have assured access to electricity," said Holland.

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Some islands are trying to fill the gaps through renewable energy. Grenada, Aruba and St. Martin, for example, have invested heavily in solar energy. St. Croix, of the U.S. Virgin Islands, recently switched all of its electric generation from oil to propane, which typically burns 30 percent cheaper.

"They become cost-effective without subsidies," said Holland. The Caribbean, he said, is "one of the only places in the world where you can throw up as much solar and wind power as possible."

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As Venezuela heads toward what seems to be an almost inevitable economic implosion, island nations like Jamaica are likely to see a sudden hole in their budget, since they rely so heavily on Venezuela for energy.

"They wouldn't have access to this low-cost oil, so you'd see energy prices spike," Holland said. "You could see inflation and a spike in unemployment."

"They put their own [energy] security in the hands of Venezuela," he said, "and it seems like that may not have been a good idea."